Facebook ads are a powerful tool misused

Edward Leonard

Facebook’s advertising system is absolutely incredible. If you were inclined to make an advertisement, you can combine any picture with any text, make a poll and target anyone you want to based on pretty much every criteria that Facebook can distinguish, which is a great many.

It’s a well-oiled machine, and it’s impressive from a business standpoint. I admire it.

What I don’t understand is how this brilliant system leads to such fantastically stupid advertisements.

I was on Facebook the other day and an advertisement popped up for some new horror flick coming out. The poll attached to it, which had been answered by a whopping 3,000 of the approximately 500 million people on Facebook, asked me what I feared most. It gave me three options: fire, wasps and dark forces.

Now when I saw this I pretty much cracked up. The first thought that occurred to me was along the lines of “which one of these things is not like the other?” This was shortly followed by the question “do most people actually fear one of these three things more than anything else?” What about public speaking or death?

And dark forces could not be more vague. My mind immediately leapt to Darth Vader, perhaps the most iconic user of the dark side of the Force. He’s pretty cool, but I don’t know if he’s the thing I fear most in the world.

This got me thinking about some of the other phenomenally stupid advertisements I’ve seen on Facebook. Did you know you could join the Great American Condom Campaign and get 500 free condoms? Neither did I, but now I do! Thanks Facebook!

Or how about this one: Tired of getting sweaters for Christmas? Ask for Bonobos pants! Whenever I get tired of sweaters for Christmas, pants are always the first things I ask for. Boy I really wants me a new pair of Christmas pants. And I would never have thought of it if it wasn’t for these wonderful Facebook ads.

And that’s to say nothing of the “Christian singles” ads featuring obnoxiously attractive skinny blonde girls built approximately like Barbie. That’s not a mixed message. I’ve been asked if my carrot hangs, or if I’m “emo for Obama” — what does that even mean — and I was told to tell my friends that their spoon collections are straining our relationships. None of that is a typo. I can even get diamond rings for less than $1 — with real diamonds. Wow!

But my absolute favorites are the IQ tests. These are pretty much the embodiment of the “picture unrelated” idea. I have been asked to count the eyes on the overly muscular fellow featured in the “Powerthirst” video on YouTube. Or if I can tell the difference between a lamp and female genitals.

Now I have to imagine that some of these ads have been put up as jokes simply to amuse those of us with an eye for detail. But others are in earnest. Facebook was started as a networking site for college students, and while it’s expanded explosively, those roots are still there.

And with all of these possible criteria for targeting your audience, you’d think that a company with these stupid advertisements might be able to think, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t target someone who has an IQ more than 4 with this ad! They might think it’s stupid and a waste of their time and space, and then they’ll want to buy our goods and/or services even less.”

So this is a call to all those who would use Facebook to advertise for whatever wares they peddle. You have a fantastic opportunity to get your product to people all over the world. You can customize and hone it to your hearts content. You can send an ad right to me that targets me specifically.

So please don’t waste my time with garbage.